Less Can Be More: Advice for Writing and Life

This week’s post was written by AMHC reader, Dr. Lisa Surridge. Check out her bio at the end of this post to learn more about her work!

At the end of my years of graduate school, a fellow student confessed to me that he had started to enjoy doing the dishes. It was so satisfying, he told me, to take a dirty dish, wash it, rinse it, and put it clean on the rack on the other side. The activity was practical. It was tangible. It was visibly complete. It was, in short, utterly unlike writing his thesis.

Thesis writing is isolating, demanding, and ill paid. It can easily come to represent a seemingly Herculean task that looms large and is seemingly never done. It can start to eat your life, invading your evenings, weekends, and family life.

The most valuable piece of advice I offer to graduate students may sound paradoxical: work fewer hours to achieve more. Do not approach the thesis as a sprint (as you would have done an undergraduate essay). Pace yourself, making time for exercise, family and friends, and life outside the university. And when you do work, try to put away procrastination, anxiety, and your own inner judge. Write as you would if you were being paid by someone else: good enough is good enough. It does not have to be perfect.

Someone’s crossed legs are outstretched on a sunny grassy field, with trees in the background.

As a graduate student, I was lucky to arrive almost by accident at two techniques that helped me to finish my thesis on a timely way without getting mired in doubt, depression, and delay: 1) I limited my thesis writing to about 40 hours a week and 2) outside those hours, I found a part-time job that involved a lot of laughter and healthy exercise.

My first move was a decision to work on my thesis only on weekdays, to give myself evenings, weekends, and stat holidays off, and to take actual holiday time (as if I were an employee and not a student). I did this because my partner, who was in law, was working out his articles and then his early years at a law firm. I decided to match my working hours to his, my holidays to his, so that we could spend time together. In other words, I treated my thesis as a job, and I stopped treating my academic work as a kind of eternal punishment demanding my every waking hour. And when I did work, I worked with focus, attention, and good planning. I found that, by doing so, I matched or exceeded the output of my peers, who spent more anxious hours at the keyboard but achieved less because they were dogged by procrastination and delay.

The lower legs of a person wearing running shoes and ascending a concrete stair are pictured.

My second move was make exercise and laughter part of every week. I cannot claim much credit for this decision. I simply needed a job outside the university and I had the skills to teach basic skating for good pay. So, after my weekdays spent slogging from 9 to 4:30 over my thesis at the library, I left for the world of the rink. I taught kids how to take their first steps on the ice. I drew dinosaurs freehand on the ice for them to stagger around on. I taught them how to do crossovers, skate backwards, and take their first tentative jumps. There was a lot of laughter and very little anxiety, which suited me just fine. Then, I did not consciously realize what I know now: that exercise, laughter, and a non-intellectual atmosphere are an excellent antidote to a day spent at the library and to the inevitable stress of one’s peers as you struggle together through doctoral work.

The take-away? Five years — the average time to complete a doctoral degree — is far too long to sacrifice family time and healthy living. Indeed, research shows us that good writing does not happen when you are anxious and exhausted. So taking time away from work can actually make you more productive. It’s hard to see that when you are stressed out. But it’s true.

In my job as graduate supervisor, I see a lot of students mired in 80-hour work weeks. But they are mostly working inefficiently, ineffectively, and with a mounting stress load that stops them from writing effectively. Then they work harder to make up the lag and end up worse off.

Fewer writing hours spent at peak productivity are far more useful than longer hours spent when you are not at your best.  

I recognize that some readers may feel enormous pressure to work long hours, and that — depending on your lab, supervisory relationship, or other factors — pulling back may seem very difficult. But in the end, productivity speaks for itself. The great thing about academic life is no one asks how many hours (or how few!) you spent on writing your brilliant chapter. They just respect the product.

So set aside time for exercise, laughter, and fun. Cultivate social activities that take you outside the often anxiety-ridden circle of your graduate peers. And treat your thesis as a job: a serious, engaging, fascinating, challenging job, which ends (just as a work day ends) and leaves you time just to be.

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Lisa Surridge, former skating instructor and rink rat, is now professor of English at the University of Victoria, Canada. On July 1, 2017, she will start a five-year term as Associate Dean Academic of the Faculty of Humanities. She is the author of Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction (Ohio UP, 2005), co-author of The Plot Thickens: Illustrated Victorian Serial Fiction from Dickens to Du Maurier (Ohio Up, forthcoming), co-editor of Aurora Floyd (Broadview Press, 1998) and The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Prose (2012) as well as the author of numerous articles on Victorian literature. She is an expert on legal prose, teaching clear writing to judges and lawyers from across Canada. She continues to combine exercise and fun by pursuing kayaking, hiking, and Zumba, with occasional forays into rock climbing.

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If you liked this article, you might want to check out this popular piece on self-care in graduate school!

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